The travels of
David Nicolson Freidberg, SMA '68

Chedi of Wat Phrathat Chom Thong
City of Chiang Rai
The narrative which appears on this page is edited from several letters, written over several months by David Nicolson Freidberg, SMA class of '68, the first of which was on May 19, 1997, and sent to myself among a group of other fellow Staunton Military Academy alumni. His story, which I have edited from those several letters, is published here with his permission and will hopefully be updated from time to time. It will acquaint the reader with the reality of life in northern Thailand, as best as it may be discerned by an informed "outsider."

In contrast, the links which I have provided will relay the commercial, educational and travel-agency information, which will combine to trace a picture of what likely awaits the pre-planned tourist or business traveler.

Malcolm L. Kantzler, SMA '65 - Story Editor & WebMaster

Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII

The Land of Smiles

Story by

David Nicolson Freidberg

We are getting a late start leaving for the mountains because my wife is sleeping late. Sleeping is the favorite national pastime here.

It has indeed been a long, strange trip from "The Hill" [shorthand for Staunton Military Academy - SMA] to the mountains and hill tribes of northern Thailand. My move here, two years ago, was the result of my second midlife crisis. The first one led me back to university when I was thirty-seven. But that is getting ahead in the story.

At SMA, when I was a student from '64 - '68, there were basically two types of cadets: there were the "hell raisers," of which I was one, and the more studious and gung-ho types. Though I was one of the few cadets in the history of military academies who actually wanted to go; after my first few days of hazing I never wanted to spend another day in uniform. But I stuck it out.

The mention of hazing in your letter brought back a host of memories, one related to Judaism. My father was Jewish, but my mother a Christian. Before I went to SMA, my mom gave me a St. Christopher's medal, which I wore. My first week on the Hill some bully, whom I'd never spoken with, beat the shit out of me for wearing the St. Christopher, calling me a Christ killer. Being from New York, I'd never experienced anti-semitism. But in F Company, where I was my Rat year, I was assigned to live with roommates named Greenberg, Finkelstein and Resnick: the only other Jews.

The hazing was absolutely ruthless and I vowed to myself that when I became an upperclassman that I would not haze rats the same way. Anyone who was effeminate, fat, slow or willful was tortured mercilessly at SMA. But, sure enough, when I had the opportunity to torment others, I relished it.

I have a recurring nightmare. It comes up about every six months. I dream that I'm back on the Hill, but as an adult who is still a cadet, surrounded by teenaged cadets. I'm unable to graduate, unable to complete the process.

In retrospect I feel that SMA did wonders for me: it gave me a clear set of rules and boundaries and also taught me the unwritten rules that really governed the place. In that environment I forged friendships that became models for my later relationships with people, based on truth, duty and honor.

When I was graduated, I went to New York University's Institute of Film and Television where I studied under Martin Scorcese. The Vietnam War was at its peak, and I was active in the anti-war movement. I became increasingly interested in comparative religion at the time; I was always (even while at SMA) drawn to the mystical traditions within each religion. My study of Judaism has been the most cursory of all the world's religions I've been exposed to. So I spent my early years of religious study at Christian monasteries, Hindu ashrams, Buddhist temples and with the Muslim mystics known as Sufis. It was with the latter group that I felt most at home, spiritually. Their goal is to live in the [physical] world but also to have a deeply spiritual focus in all activities. Perhaps that's more like the Hasidic tradition in Judaism and encompasses the Muslim elements that are parallel to the Kaballah. I began this journey at the suggestion of the religious studies department chair, taking what I thought would be a one-year leave of absence to study religion. It was to be seventeen years before I returned to academia.

I spent two years travelling overland from Europe to India. I had no money and stayed entirely at monasteries, mosques and ashrams. It was the best and most profound period of my life. Every day revealed itself as a miracle, and I had the great fortune to study with some remarkable men and women.

Upon returning to the U.S., I worked on the staff of the Arica Institute, in San Francisco, where I taught meditation. Then I entered business; first selling real estate, then I was in advertising and finally wound up in financial services with Prudential. I lived in San Francisco and Honolulu.

Two marriages produced no children: the first wife didn't want them and the second couldn't have them. I was moderately successful in business and had my house in the suburbs, two cars, cell phone and all the goodies. But I was miserable.

It got so bad that I was unable to get out of bed in the mornings and slept almost continuously. It was diagnosed as Epstein-Barr Virus: the fashionable yuppie disease of that time. I went to see a psychiatrist and he informed me that he charged $150 per hour and that my insurance didn't cover it. I asked him what he could do for me in an hour. He asked two questions: the first was, "What would you do if you had six months to live and would be healthy during that time?" I replied that I would write.

The second question was, "What would you do if you won the lottery?" I said that I would return to university and study world religions. I had never consciously considered that, thinking I was too old to go to school, but was amazed that was what I really longed to do. The $150 I paid him was the best money I ever spent.

The next day I went to the admissions office at University of California at Berkeley and asked how I could get in. They said they had a special program for old farts who wanted to return to school, told me that if I went to community college for a year and studied a language and mathematics, and got A's, that they would probably take me. I went back to the office and quit my job the same day.

I then worked nights for a bank in their Visa and Mastercard customer service department, making a fraction of my previous income. During the day I went first to the community college and then to Berkeley, where I studied early Christianity under a brilliant mentor. Every cell of my body was bathed in this new world of ideas. I worked eight hours each night, went to classes eight hours each day, and for three years never looked at a TV or went to a movie. I was constantly exhausted. My wife of eight years left me because I had no energy or time for her. It was an amicable split; she had her own fish to fry and we are still great friends.

I was graduated from Berkeley with highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, and received a fellowship to study Islam under a marvelous professor at University of Colorado at Boulder. I also taught there. In the summers I studied in Cairo, Istanbul and Damascus. My M.A. thesis of 250 pages was on the "must-read" list for many Islamicists in the U.S. and abroad. I was, despite my age, on the academic fast track.

After completing my M.A. I went to University of Virginia, just down the pike from SMA, to finish up my PhD. Unfortunately, my mentor there, whom I had previously known only from his books, loathed me from the outset. He was going through a nervous breakdown which eventually resulted in his being officially reprimanded for his outbursts. I fled there and came to Thailand on what I thought was to be a two week holiday. My first week was spent on the beach; the second was spent in the fleshpots of Pattaya.


After having gone back to Virginia, I returned to Thailand a month later for another three- week visit. This time I decided to put everything in storage in the U.S. and stay for awhile. I chose Chiang Mai as my base camp. It's a city of a million and a-half people--the second largest city in Thailand--located in the northeast, near the Golden Triangle. This year Chiang Mai is celebrating its 700th year. Until seventy years ago it was an independent kingdom, known as Lanna (which means 'one million rice fields').

It is a wonderful place to live. The old city is surrounded by a wall and moat, and there are many ancient Buddhist temples. The weather is (relatively) moderate, there is all the infrastructure of a city, but lots of charm and beauty. The people are generally tall, light skinned and fine-featured. The women of this province are famed for their beauty.

The city is surrounded on three sides by mountains, and it is easy to get out into the countryside. My first six months here were spent primarily in bars and in beds. But I made occasional trips into the mountains where I explored the hill tribes and found their people to be more genuine than the urban Thais. There are six major hill-tribe villages in Thailand. My wife's village is north of here, close to the Burmese border.

When I met my wife, Nam, a year and a half ago, she was selling clothes at a small shop in the night bazaar. I invited her out to eat some noodles and was impressed by her intelligence and humor. We started dating, and after a month or so she moved in with me. She insisted that she was 23 years old but later revealed that she was only eighteen. I soon found out, also, that she was a member of the Lahu hill tribe, and I visited her village to meet her family.

Hill tribe people in Thailand have no rights and are stateless persons. The situation is akin to Native Americans one-hundred years ago. Despite Nam's being born in Thailand, she can not legally travel outside her district, can't buy property or a motorbike, or own a business. Nor can she get a passport. Her village is very poor and just got electricity this year. Nam helps as she can by doing volunteer work at the Viengping Children's Home, an orphanage.

Despite the obstacle of our being from such completely different worlds, we have spent a year and a half together learning to adjust to each other. It has been the most difficult relationship of my life but also the most fulfilling.

Nam and I don't have any children yet but hope to in the future. She is now seeing a tribal healer who says her plumbing is "cold and hard," from having taken birth control injections during our first year together. The prescription is: deep abdominal massages by the healer (who is called a "mother of ants" for some reason), herbal teas, avoidance of cold beverages and weekly sweat-lodge sessions, in which Nam is covered from head to toe in several layers of blankets and squats for a half hour over a caldron of boiling herbs. The temperature outside this "oven" is about 110, but Nam emerges looking refreshed.

In addition to the witch doctors, there is an excellent hospital in Chiang Mai, where all the doctors were educated in the west and speak good English. The best part is that almost all the nurses are stunning and still wear those adorable nurses' caps. Generally though, medical care here is awful. My brother in law--a dear, sweet soul who spent a few years as a Buddhist monk--was in a motorcycle accident and was taken to the largest public hospital. The E.R. looked like a triage unit during World War One. He was in a coma and was placed in a trauma room with ten other hapless souls, three of whom died the first night. When he regained consciousness, he pressed his palms together and bowed his head to me in the traditional Thai greeting. He said that he was afraid of all the ghosts in the room. I was too. His medical treatment (I had to guarantee payment in advance) was $30 for a week in the hospital, meds, and surgery. In the village there is no medical care whatsoever.

Despite Thailand's having an excellent AIDS awareness program; the disease is still rampant, especially among rural Thais. Two weeks ago I visited a house in Nam's village that is "cursed." There were two women living there with their two children. They are ostracized by the other villagers. One woman has AIDS, as does her emaciated seven year- old son, who was playing with a balloon made from a condom. Her husband died of the disease. The other woman's husband died of a heroin overdose and her 10 year-old daughter is a mute.

Nam's two younger brothers and two younger sisters are like surrogate children for me. The 7- and 12-year-old girls, especially, are a constant source of delight. When I am in the village they pamper me and take me everywhere by the hand. When they come to the city (they had never been outside the village before meeting me) I take them to the zoo, movies and shopping.

In a major city like Chiang Mai, consumer goods are abundant. You may not be able to get your favorite brand of shampoo from America, but you can find almost everything. Luxury goods, electronics and cars are heavily taxed. The tax on a Mercedes is 100%. Pickup trucks are not taxed, so many people do what I did: get a p/u and then retrofit it with a cab, sofas and aircon in back. The main problem is discovering where to get the stuff, as there's nothing like the Yellow Pages here. Though there are a couple of huge shopping centers, it's far cheaper to go to the open-air market. But to buy a hammer and nails, I went first to the street where hammers are sold and then had to walk five blocks to the nail bazaar. This is fine with Thais; they are never in a hurry to do anything, never show up for an appointment on time (if at all) and will do absolutely nothing unless it is fun. My project this week is to buy the older sister a bicycle so she can take herself and the younger sister to school on that.

Nam's sisters currently have to walk two miles to and from school each day, and although education is theoretically mandatory up to sixth grade, there is no enforcement of this, and if children are needed in the fields they do not go to school.

The older sister amazes me. Hers is the first generation in the history of the tribe to be literate. I recently asked her what she wants to be when she grows up and she replied, "I want to be a doctor and help old people." I wanted to cry. I pay tuition for Nam and her 17 year-old brother, and I want to send the young sisters to a good Catholic boarding school here in the city. But right now there are obstacles to that: their being from a hill tribe, they are not up to speed in speaking Thai well enough (they speak Lahu at home, which is a Tibetan dialect). My limited cash flow is the other obstacle. Sometimes I feel like a one- man development project, but really, it is an honor to serve these people.

We primarily live in a luxury, one-bedroom condo which I rent in Chiang Mai. It has marble floors and a great view of Doi Suthep mountain. Rent is $280 per month. I spend my days reading, taking care of errands, and writing. I support myself with investments and real estate in America. Nam goes to school during the day studying fashion design and then goes to night school studying Thai, math, history and the like. Her English is good, and I'm teaching her to read it, as well. Thailand is, it would seem, an intellectual wasteland. I have never seen a Thai reading a book, other than on university campuses.

We usually spend weekends in her village. We just finished building a traditional Lahu bamboo house there and have a few acres planted with corn, ginger, some bananas and tamarind. Members of the family do the actual farming.

The saying here is that there are three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest. When it's hot (as it is now) temperatures in Chiang Mai are 100-110 in the daytime and go down to the mid 80's at night. In fact Chiang Mai is noted (by Thais) for its temperate climate. The monsoons, which start in July and last for 3-4 months, are not unpleasant. It pours buckets late every afternoon for an hour or two and everyone stays inside. The streets all flood. In the winter (Nov-Feb) the temperatures plunge to the low sixties at night and everyone bundles up like they were going to Minnesota. In the mountains near here it does get quite nippy at night and there was even 1/16th of an inch of snow one night last year on nearby Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in the country. It was the first such blizzard in recent years. One adjusts (slowly) to the climate though.

And to foreigners. I have finally ceased to be a novelty. My first few visits were strange because many of the children had never seen a westerner before. The kids are still astonished but the adults are not. Still, one is always referred to as a "farang" - the word for Caucasian. One can live here for thirty years, speak impeccable Thai, and yet never be considered an insider. And you're not. As though to remind you of this, a foreigner has to leave the country every three months to renew his or her visa. You will never be able to truly think like an Asian or understand Thais. It is, in fact, still a largely feudal society, and in the Thai language one has many different forms of address for others depending on their status relative to yourself.

When I married Nam, in a traditional Lahu ceremony, I became a member of the clan, and on tribal holidays I get dressed up in what I call my Mekhong River Admiral's full-dress: baggy black pajamas (your basic Viet Cong rig) with red embroidered cuffs and collar.

For entertainment when we are in the city, we go out with friends to restaurants or bars, or we rent videos. In the village we sit around the hearth with the natives or go hiking. The village is an infamous opium-producing and trafficking center, so I need to be careful where I go and what I do; not for fear of the villagers, but of the police, who would love to nab me in the vicinity of drugs so they could shake me down for astronomical bribes.

The cost of living here is much less than in the U.S. A good meal costs a dollar or two and everything, with the exception of cars and electronics, is cheap. Medicine is also affordable. A few months ago I went for chest x-ray, blood & urine workup, etc., and the cost was $40. A luxury room in the hospital with a great view, fridge, comfy tables & chairs costs only $40/day.

In Thailand there is a monied elite that comprises five percent of the population, a middle class of about fifteen percent, and eighty percent are peasants. But there is an abundance of food, and shelter is cheap. A laborer in the agricultural or manufacturing sectors makes about $100 per month. There is virtually nothing available in the way of social services, the family is the only safety net, and family loyalty is paramount. Thais do not want to consider themselves as individuals; they are part of a family, first and foremost. Yet, despite that, I have known women here who were sold by their families into prostitution when they were fourteen. I have seen young children who were addicted to heroin because their families would sedate them with heroin laced cigarettes to pacify them while they went to do stoop labor in the fields. I have known others, like my wife, who never had an opportunity for an education because they had to work in fields or sweat shops.

Thailand is fairly stable politically, but is riddled with corruption from top to bottom. The king is the major unifying force in the country and is beloved by all. Any public criticism of the monarchy is dealt with harshly: a newspaper columnist was recently jailed for referring to the king as "the skipper," because the king wore yachting attire. In the future, when the king dies, there will be chaos and possible civil war over the succession.

Bribery is pandemic. If you should run afoul of the police (for a real or imagined offense) there is no due process whatsoever. But a bribe will get you out of any jam short of killing a Buddhist monk. Bribes are called "direct taxation" here. The police are feared and loathed by everyone. The generals and ranking police officers control much of the country's heroin and amphetamine trades, gambling and prostitution. The news, in Thai, is censored and also primarily controlled by the military (but I get CNN on cable).

Drug abuse is common, both by Thais and foreigners. There are loads of people addicted to opium and heroin, but because it is cheaper here than beer, it does not lead one to crime to support one's habit, as it does in America. And, prostitution is, of course, rampant. But, it is all rather friendly and innocent; no pimps or anything like that. Usually, it's more like dating. Child prostitution is now a rarity here, though common in Cambodia, which is still a major travel destination for pedophiles, and where large districts just outside Phnom Penh are nothing but brothels, where ladies in the sex industry are mostly Vietnamese, and the going rate is said to be $2.00 - $4.00 U.S. Really, I find such places terribly depressing. I have never been afraid of violent crime in Thailand, except at the hands of Westerners. There is some property crime, but Thais are generally a very peaceful people, perhaps because of their Buddhist values.

I can only think of one or two times that I have experienced a Thai being even slightly rude. They are the most polite, considerate people that I've encountered in the 35-40 countries I've visited. They will generally do anything to avoid confrontation with, or the embarrassment of, one another. The "Thai Smile" is famous throughout the world, and though it does not necessarily indicate happiness all the time, it always betokens civility and good manners. People do not honk their car horns or raise their voices at one another. But, if you ever seriously offend a Thai, you are likely to pay for it with your life. A contract killing by a pro costs a few hundred dollars, but anyone can hire a thug to maim or kill an enemy for the price of two six-packs of beer.

I have never seen a child cry here except when it has been badly hurt. Children (like good SMA cadets) know their place and do not try to jockey for adult privileges. No begging or whining. Children are invariably polite and well-mannered. They are held and doted upon but have almost no fear of strangers. The older ones look after the younger ones and the roam freely in packs whether in village or city.

I did once get into a fight here in a bar, with a drunk Aussie. I had never spoken with him but he came over and said that the woman I was with was a whore. In fact, she has struggled all her life not to be a prostitute and is one of the most remarkable people I know. I calmly told him that he was mistaken but he reasserted his claim. I decked him, and when he got up I gave him a sound thrashing. The police came and took one look at all his tatoos and gnarly face (now missing a front tooth), looked at me, and then gave me the thumbs up sign. Normally, they would have shaken a brawler down for a bribe.

One of the most striking things about living here is how free the Thais are, relative to Americans. There may not be great political freedom, but they are mostly apathetic, politically anyway. If, for example, you want to drive the wrong way on a one-way street, and it appears safe to do so, then you will. If you come to a stop light and there are no other cars approaching the intersection, you will run the light. Last year they instituted a helmet law for motorbike drivers (which are the most common vehicles here). If you fail to wear a helmet you may be stopped by a cop, but you just pay a bribe of from $4-$8 to go on your way. Since the traffic cops are the only ones to enforce the law (it's beneath the dignity of a regular cop), and since the traffic cops go off duty at 6:00 P.M., nobody dons a helmet after that. Most people have no drivers license or vehicle registration either.

I've never met a Thai who pays their income tax, you can smoke anywhere, and lawyers...lawyers are as scarce as chimney sweeps. There is little sense of liability: if you own a shop and someone falls into a huge hole in the sidewalk outside, they wouldn't dream of suing. Everyone knows that it's not the owner's fault if the pedestrian wasn't looking where he or she was going. Most serious accidents are settled on the spot with an agreement on damages.

The Internet just became available to the general public this year and is costly: 20 hours for $20 or 40 hours for $36. Since most stuff is in English, the market here is for the intelligentsia and foreigners.

All in all I love it here. The people are polite and friendly; they have a distaste for the rules that are so prevalent in the West. The food is delicious, the women are beautiful and as available as donuts in America, there are beaches, mountains and cities, and the most important criteria for everything is "Is it fun?" If it isn't fun, then Thais want no part of it.


In short, my brief two years in Thailand has been an amazing journey that has taken me deeper into knowledge of myself. I have had to question all my values and beliefs. As much as I miss my family and friends, I have never seriously wanted to return to life in America which, by comparison, seems plagued by fear and indifference.

But, life here in the "Land of Smiles" has been pure hell for the last two weeks. A friend was visiting from the U.S. and I had to take him touring and my computer has been down for ten days (upgrading to Windows 95 hassles). I used to know an American here who helped me with such computer problems, but he was last seen in a hill-tribe village in the Golden Triangle, strung out on opium. I need to find another person to help, but I'm leaving town in another two days for a trip to Cambodia and time is running out.

The Cambodia trip should be interesting. There's been fighting in the capitol of Phnom Penh this week. I'll be there visiting a friend. Then I'll head up the Mekhong by boat to Angkor Wat, which is near where Pol Pot is said to be hiding out with about one thousand Khmer Rouge diehards [this was written about a week before the mixed speculation of Pol Pot's death or capture was prevalent in the U.S. news - Ed.]. I'll try to avoid pissing off teenagers with M-16's and also will watch where I step; there are still heaps of land mines around.

And, I've kicked my wife out (at least temporarily) because she has a gambling addiction.


I arrived into Cambodia's Pochentong Airport just before lunch on June 27 and was met by my chum, John Macalaster, who teaches English to English instructors at the university. John's a Kiwi (New Zealander) who has been in Phnom Penh for two years, following a few years in Thailand and many more in Africa. After having my passport examined and stamped by a dozen functionaries, John whisked me off to lunch at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

My first impressions in Cambodia were of its poverty, more evident on the streets than in Thailand. More pervasive is the French bread which is sold on almost every corner of streets leading to broad, tree-lined boulevards, flanked everywhere by terrific French colonial architecture.

Phnom Penh has about a million inhabitants, 1/10th the population of a country the size of Oklahoma--many people missing limbs. There are 40,000 survivors of encounters with land mines who are seen everywhere, usually begging. The government can't afford to assist them. There are still four to ten million unexploded mines in the country. If efforts to clear them were to quadruple, it would still take 100 years to do so.

I went shopping in the Central Market, a huge affair covered with the 5th-largest dome in the world, and the Russian Market, where the Soviets used to shop. In addition to all the usual household items and strange foods, one can buy superb silver crafted by Cham Muslims.

Then I visited Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum. It was a high school which the Khmer Rouge turned into their central torture chamber between 1975 and 1979, when they were in power. Soldiers and officials of the Non Lol regime, academics, artists, engineers, doctors, Buddhist monks, Christians, Muslims and a few foreigners were among the more than 20,000 victims who met horrible deaths at Tuol Sleng, or were tortured and then taken to the Killing Fields after their confessions were extracted. Nobody knows exactly how many Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Estimates range from 2-3 million, this, out of a population of 7 million. Any talk of bringing Pol Pot (long-time Khmer Rouge leader, responsible for the murder of millions) to international justice for these crimes was scoffed at by the Cambodians I spoke with. They point to the many accomplices to his atrocities: most notably the Americans and Chinese. Because the Khmer Rouge was an enemy of the North Vietnamese, the United States did not withdraw support of them until 1993.

There are many Westerners in Cambodia, 8,000 in the capital alone. Most of them work for nongovernmental aid organizations which account for half of the country's income. One evening, I dined with several expat English teachers who had lived in Phnom Penh for a long time. Another night I ate with ten Khmer English instructors at the university. A Cambodian teacher is paid $20 per month, the same wage as a soldier, and wages are often paid several months late. During both evenings the main topics of conversation were personal security and the politics in the country. Residents of Phnom Penh normally go home early in the evening, and then in convoys to deter holdups. Some of the Khmer teachers, who seemed models of gentility, wore guns under their shirts. On my last night before going to Angkor Wat, a Canadian tourist was shot dead for being too slow in handing over his wallet to soldiers who held him up on a main street in the capital.

After four days in Phnom Penh, I flew up to the northwest, to Siem Reap, which is the large town outside Angkor Wat. It is a quiet, lovely town and I stayed at a superb hotel, built in traditional style, that served delicious Khmer cuisine and, although no romance for me, an opportunity for one very chaste flirtation with a charming waitress who spoke fluent English, French, Thai and Khmer.

I explored Angkor Wat's magnificent ruined temples and palaces, along with two Canadian women, recent MBA grads of Harvard business school, to whom I was just an interesting relic, like those of which we were surrounded. Built between the 9th and 12th centuries, they rival the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. It is the largest religious complex ever built, and it is one of the most beautiful, with impressive bas-relief sculptures and imposing spires. It was the cradle of the Khmer civilization, which ruled Southeast Asia for four centuries. I spent three days exploring Angkor Wat's treasures, and in the late afternoon I returned to Phnom Penh, where shortly after landing at the airport, I heard the first mortar shells and rockets exploding. My vacation was over.


My driver, taking me from the airport was very nervous and advised me to stay inside my hotel that night. I did.

The next morning we toured around the city a bit, but the sound of gunfire made it seem prudent to go back to the hotel, located across the street from the Royal Palace. By late afternoon, the sound of fighting, only a few kilometers away, near the airport, was almost constant. Nobody was venturing onto the streets, and I ate dinner with a Swiss engineer next to the hotel. The owner of the restaurant insisted on paying for our dinner, saying, "I want you to remember the good things about Cambodia after you leave."

It was difficult to sleep. The exploding mortar and rocket shells rattled the windows of my hotel room. And now, I could also hear automatic-weapons fire.

At six in the morning, on July 5, I awoke to the sound of explosions. No chance of falling back to sleep. A few cars and motorcycles brave the streets, but most people are staying home. By nine in the morning, the fighting was two blocks away at the residence of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was being deposed as first prime minister by Hun Sen.

Ten days after this assault on the palace, which deposed Prince Ranariddh, in a surprise announcement made with the support of a dissident group of Ranariddh's royalist party, Ung Huot, Cambodia's foreign minister, agreed to take the position as first prime minister. He is considered to be no more than a figurehead, intended to ease international acceptance of the new regime. The Clinton administration refused to recognize Huot, saying there was no evidence he was freely elected. Armed resistance to the coup continued through the next 12 days, spreading throughout the northwest. One of Hun Sen's first statements, following the coup, was of his proclaimed intent to establish an Interior Ministry task force on human rights and press freedoms. But the likelihood of any such task force having real power to act against the government is highly questionable, considering past events, including one several months before the coup, where the FBI and other agencies had implicated Sen's men in the grenade-attack deaths of 16 protestors of Sen's control of a corrupt Justice Ministry. - Ed.

While I stood in the entry of the hotel, someone opened up with a submachine gun on the street and I dove for cover into the doorway, bruising my shoulder and skinning my knuckles.

There were only a half dozen guests at the hotel, and we conferred on how to escape if it got worse. Three were journalists: two Austrian TV cameramen and a Khmer reporter. We decided to flee in their car at the next lull in the shelling. An armored personnel carrier had now taken up position outside the hotel and the street was otherwise empty. I wanted to drive three blocks to the American Embassy, but there was heavy fighting in the two streets between the hotel and there. We got through to the U.S. Embassy on the phone, and they advised going to the luxury Cambodiana Hotel, a few blocks in the opposite direction, which was being set up as a refugee center for American and French nationals. We piled into the car and made the dash.

Refugees were beginning to gather at this hotel, where an old sign outside proclaimed "Happy Cambodia." The American Embassy had rented the ballroom and Americans were allowed to camp there. We filled out forms with the names of who should be notified in case of emergency, and we were asked to provide photos of ourselves--this turned out to be the full extent of State Department assistance to its citizens.

I was able to rent the last available room in the hotel, at $170 per night. Soon, the ballroom, hallways and lobby were filled with refugees from different nations. The restaurant served food in chow lines. The hotel staff, operating on a skeleton crew, were magnificent and demonstrated the courage and kindness of the Khmer people. Despite that their thoughts were on family and loved ones, the hotel staff did everything they could to calm and care for the unexpected host of shaken guests.

Fighting continued throughout the day and evening. A fuel depot and two TV stations exploded. A mortar shell landed next to the hotel, which was now flying the United Nations flag. Small-arms fire continued to crackle sporadically, and the rattled windows and doors in my room continued to sustain the shock from exploding shells.


The fighting in Phnom Penh was in full swing all day & night on July 5-6. After that, there continued to be widespread looting, mostly by Hun Sen's troops, and this period was more nerve-wracking than the previous days during the shelling. There continued to be occasional small arms fire nearby and soldiers were shaking down any foreigners on the streets. Stores everywhere in the city had been looted. Banks and most shops and restaurants were closed and nobody ventured out after dark.

The major fighting was now between forces centered in the northwest, in Siem Reap, from where I had just come. And, there were the rumors, of FUNCINPEC royalists being rounded up, tortured and executed, and that Prince Ranarridh's FUNCINPEC troops were regrouping for a counter-attack on the capitol. Hun Sen's troops were very much in evidence everywhere in the city.

At one point, Hun Sen's secret police conducted a room-to-room search in the Cambodiana Hotel--which flew the U.N flag and was a refugee center--looking for members of Ranarridh's cabinet. At six in the morning one day, a burly fellow with a radio appeared at my door and said he needed to check the mini-bar. I thought this peculiar because I had never used the bar in my previous four days there, and he barely glanced at the fridge and bar while he was in the room. The hotel staff would never do something so absurd as knock on doors at 6:00 A.M.--everything there is run like a fine European hotel. The Cambodian guests were very nervous. Plainclothes police discreetly searched inside while troops waited outside. So I would occasionally see thugs with pistols in their belts walking around carrying shortwave radios.

Most of my time was now spent on trying to get out, with repeated trips to closed airline and travel agency offices, etc. Scheduled flights were cancelled. I met a Frenchman who had tried to get to the Vietnamese border in a van with some friends. They walked back to Phnom Penh with only their passports.

I donated blood at a Red Cross blood bank set up at the Cambodiana, and the Swiss doctor there said that the death toll reported by Hun Sen was perhaps 10 percent of the actual number. Hun Sen's forces had shelled the major hospital in Phnom Penh and the doctors and nurses had fled. One doctor who remained was charging patients $10 to remove each bullet, and if the patient didn't have the cash, treatment was withheld.

Expats living in Phnom Penh returned to their homes, but there was still no way out of the country for Americans and Europeans. The Thai government arranged to evacuate its citizens, and they were taken by military escort to the airport and flown out by the Thai Air Force. After getting its citizens out, the Thai government condemned the coup.

New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia sent military aircraft to evacuate their citizens. The Japanese embassy quietly arranged passage for its citizens on the first charter flight. Regular commercial flights were still suspended, but a charter company flew two flights out on the 9th. Tickets were sold out within minutes at hugely inflated prices.

All the Asian countries got their citizens out on military cargo planes. The American embassy continued to maintain that it saw no reason to evacuate Americans or help them in trying to leave. The State Department in Washington then condemned the coup and Hun Sen, thus placing the 1,600 Americans in Phnom Penh at greater risk.

At dawn, on July 10th, I decided to go to the airport and camp out there until I could get onto a charter flight. I had just enough cash for a ticket. The airport had been the scene of a pitched battle, and the terminal, as well as part of the control tower, were destroyed. Driving past three burned-out tanks, I arrived at what was left of the airport and found about a thousand westerners attempting to get out.

It was chaos, no tickets, no order. On the other side of a fence I saw three pilots I knew from Chiang Mai. They were flying the charter planes, and I asked the flight crew to help a family of Baptist missionaries get on board. The parents had four small children and they were very frightened. They had only been in Cambodia for two weeks into their two-year assignment. They were the last passengers to get aboard. The crew promised to get me aboard, too; so, if my luck held out, they would manage to get me past the guards and into the cockpit jump seat of an L-1011, and home.


The guards, like enlisted personnel everywhere in Southeast Asia, were deferential to ranking officers: in this case, to uniformed pilots whom they knew to be higher up the chain of command. So, with me walking beside them, my friends just said to the guards, "He's a pilot." No questions were asked, but once on the plane, and when we were just about ready to get under way, my pilot buddy asked, "Were you punched out by immigration?" I had indeed neglected to get my passport stamped. The pilot said that he thought that immigration in Bangkok might create a difficulty about that.

While the plane waited for me, I ran across the tarmac, where dozens of workers were sweeping up shrapnel, and I dashed over to the immigration officers. "Where is your airplane ticket?" they asked.

"I don't have one. I'm a pilot." He looked up and down at my clothing. I was wearing my Cambodian Red Cross blood donor's T-shirt. When getting dressed to go to the airport that morning I had thought it might win me some small favor from the soldiers there. Now I wasn't so sure that idea was going to work for me, and as there was nobody with me to confirm my story, I was told a superior would have to approve stamping my passport. When an officer arrived, before he had the chance to consider my claim of being a pilot, I quickly persuaded him to go the gate, where a soldier there confirmed that I'd left the plane a few minutes earlier. They punched my passport and I was out of there, sprinting back to the plane, now waiting with its engines revving.

Our plane was the only commercial carrier at the airport. There were some Malaysian and Philippine C-130's still loading their nationals. As we taxied to the end of the runway to turn around for takeoff, I saw several aging MIGs in their hangars off to the side, and I had a momentary, paranoid fear that they were going to scramble and shoot us down. I realized then how frayed my nerves had become since I arrived back at this airport from Siem Reap almost a week ago.

We were cleared for takeoff, and the increasing pitch of the engines was barely perceptible as the Captain slowly worked the throttles forward, beginning our acceleration down the runway. As we lifted off I could hear the passengers cheering. I looked down from the large window on my side, the base of which was level with my seat, curving up to a point above my head, and I watched the rice fields surrounding the airport give way to the beautiful tree-lined boulevards of Phnom Penh, and the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, and I couldn't believe how such a splendid place could be the scene of so much suffering. As I watched the city fall away beneath me, through the spectacularly wide, unrestricted view of the front cockpit windows, I felt relieved to have experienced the event without somehow coming into harm's way. But, I knew, as did the passengers cheering in the back, that was not going to be the fate for many in the country below who cannot fly away, and I prayed for Cambodia, for peace. I watched the altimeter as we climbed up through the clouds and into the clear sky above. My clothes, soaked in sweat from my jog across the runway, clung to my body in the cold air of the cockpit. After what seemed like only a few minutes, we were in Thai airspace.

Landing at Don Muang airport in Bangkok seemed so very routine, going through immigration and customs as I had numerous times before. I called Nam on my cell phone as soon as I got into the terminal, and she said she would meet me a few hours later when I landed in Chiang Mai. I went to a Burger King in the domestic terminal and munched on a Whopper. The normality of everything seemed so very bizarre. A little more than an hour before I had been surrounded by a crush people trying to flee a coup. I could scarcely believe that the adventure was finally over.

To be continued.

Biographical story text copyright © David Nicolson Freidberg - all rights reserved.

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